AFP, Mar 20, 2011
PHNOM PENH: With his eyes fixed on the screen and his fingers flying over the keyboard, Cambodian teenager An Sopheak is lost in a world of ancient Chinese fighter heroes.
All around him, dozens of other, mostly male, faces are equally engrossed in their online fantasy game in this dark Internet cafe in the Cambodian capital.
The scene is a familiar one across Asia, but it's a relatively new sight in Cambodia, one of the region's poorest nations with one of the lowest rates of Internet usage.
"I feel so cool when my hero gets stronger," said 16-year-old An Sopheak, taking a short break from Justice X Wars II, known as JXII, the country's most popular game.
Cambodia, with a population of some 14 million people, had just 78,000 Internet users in 2009, according to the most recent United Nations data, but web access is improving rapidly.
As more Internet cafes have opened up, online gaming has taken off among Cambodia's urban teens, most of whom have no Internet at home.
Multi-player online games allow people to compete against each other in an ongoing virtual adventure.
It is no surprise that the trend is gradually spreading to countries with relatively low connectivity rates, said industry analyst Michael Inouye at US-based ABI Research.
"The limiting factor in the less affluent countries is often infrastructure and hardware-related and not for a lack of desire," he said.
It is a similar story in Nepal, another impoverished country with extremely low Internet penetration.
Only an estimated one percent of its 28 million people has web access, but teenagers are now flocking to Internet cafes in the capital Kathmandu to play games with combative names like World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike, Street Fighter and Call of Duty.
"I love it, it feels like you are playing a physical game," said Ronit Shrestha, 16, who spends 30 rupees (50 cents) an hour on his hobby.
Sudeep Shrestha, who runs a centre for electronic gaming in the city, said the popularity of online games was fuelled by a lack of things for young people to do.
"We have very few open spaces where people can go to play physical games," he said. "Like all new technology, online games arrived here very late, only a few years ago, but they have become popular with young people who want to have fun in the virtual world."
But some poor Asian countries such as Bangladesh -- which like Cambodia has an Internet penetration rate of just 0.5 percent -- have yet to embrace online gaming.
Teenagers in the capital Dhaka love to spend time on social networking sites like Facebook, but there appears to be little appetite for long-running, multi-player games and the city has no dedicated gaming centres.
This could have something to do with Dhaka's daily rolling blackouts which would prevent players from being online for hours on end, as seems to be the norm among gamers.
Richard Heeks, professor of development informatics at Britain's University of Manchester, says the appeal of online gaming is "universal" and it is only a matter of time before the phenomenon spreads as the world gets more connected.
"In five years' time no doubt the gaming bandwagon will be rolling through Africa," he predicts.
Cambodia's Internet cafes are trying to cash in on the trend by offering discounts to gamers, who overwhelmingly favour JXII -- a multi-player adventure based on Chinese legends that involves fighting opponents from rival kingdoms.
"I play the game in secret," said 14-year-old Chheng Roth Donior, who admits to spending three to five hours a day in Internet cafes if he can.
"Sometimes my mum beats me because I come here. I am afraid of her finding out but I want to play," the art school student said.
His virtual warfare costs him between 2,000 (50 cents) and 5,000 riel a day, money he takes out of his daily food allowance of 5,000 riel. "Sometimes I don't eat," he said.
While that might sound extreme, Cambodian gamers so far appear to be less hardcore than some of their peers in countries where online gaming is more entrenched.
China and South Korea have opened treatment facilities to help gamers overcome their Internet addictions.
In South Korea, online gaming has even been linked to deaths. Last year, a 32-year-old man died after reportedly playing for five days with few breaks, and a teenage boy committed suicide after killing his mother for scolding him over playing computer games too much.
Cambodia has ordered gaming centres not to set up shop near schools to discourage pupils from skipping class to play computer games.
Nonetheless, So Sothy, a Phnom Penh high school teacher, estimates that 10 percent of his 50 students regularly play truant so they can indulge in online gaming.
"I worry that they spend more time on games than on lessons, and forget to do their homework," the 27-year-old said.
But time spent on the computer can also be beneficial for people in developing countries, according to Heeks.
"There may be economic advantages -- helping build ICT (information and communication technology) skills, helping build the foundation for a gaming sector -- though it's all rather new for us to pronounce with any certainty," he said.